Tag Archives: utility

Utility and identity

Being reduced to your utility is not good for self esteem. However, there’s a powerful flip-side to this as well – if you aren’t sure of what space there is for you, utility can be a good thing to hide behind. I’ve gone into many spaces offering my usefulness and willing to work simply so that I could be confident there was a space for me. I find it hard to ask for space if I’m not clear about what I’m offering. I feel more secure when I have a defined role.

Workishness can also be a good defence from having to look too closely at areas of insufficiency. I’ve done this, too. If you’re always busy, if there’s always a stack of jobs to do, you never have to pause and look at your life. Emotional insufficiencies can be blocked out by work. If you are busy, you never have to ask what you want or need – something else is always more important. If your situation isn’t that happy or rewarding but you want to stay in it, being busy can enable that, but it isn’t always the best choice.

Relentless working can become a part of your identity. The idea of ‘hard work’ as a virtue can mean that grinding yourself down every day seems like a noble or necessary activity. If you take up residence here, then the work, the doing, and being someone who works flat out all the time can become a major part of your sense of self. I’ve watched a few people go down this road and it isn’t pretty. Once you buy into working yourself into the ground as part of who you are, there’s a lot of motivation to hang on to it. Who would you be without the work?

Who am I? It is always a challenging question to ask. Who am I aside from this thing I have pegged my time, energy and identity to? And the more frightening question: Am I anything at all if I am not useful and working? It can prove far less frightening to keep slogging away so as not to have space to ask that question in the first place…

Relentless slogging leads to diminishing returns. Exhaustion, burnout, lack of ideas, lack of inspiration and input all take you in a downward spiral, locked into an embrace with the very thing that is taking you down. Breaking out of that is hard. If you’ve become utility-orientated, the best break out comes from seeing utility in different terms: If you want to be creative, inspired, able to do radical new things and make real change, you need to be well resourced. You need energy and inspiration and this means you need to take care of your own needs and wants at least some of the time. Resting improves efficiency.

The other question to ask, is what are you working for? What is this supposed to achieve? Because unless your vision is of a world where we all work ourselves to death as fast as possible, the odds are you aren’t moving towards your own vision here. I’ve seen this come up repeatedly for activists and creators alike. Living in a way that is at odds with the world you want to create isn’t a good idea and manifestly does not deliver your intentions.

It’s important to pause regularly and draw breath. Ask what you are doing, and why, and whether the means truly support the ends. If you are routinely hurting yourself, ask what you are protecting yourself from in doing this. Dare to ask what you really want, and what the best way to get there might be. Being busy isn’t always the most productive approach, sometimes it’s a way of avoiding the things you most need to do.

Neither use nor ornament

I don’t know when the phrase ‘neither use nor ornament’ entered my awareness, but it was early on, and applied to me. The first sense of my appearance I had, was the description that I am ‘funny looking’ and I have understood for most of my life that as I am not ornamental, I had better throw everything I have into being useful. It’s been a life defining sort of phrase.

The idea that things should either be useful to us, or visually pleasing, not only informs many human interactions, but is central to the relationship we westerners have with the natural world. We prioritise the pretty things, the charming and the lovely, and we ask what the point of wasps is. Thus to be neither use nor ornament, is by this measure, to be nothing at all.

I wonder sometimes, how different my life would have been if I’d grown up feeling good enough, innately worthy of love, and confident of my place in the world. I would have been an entirely different person, I would have made different choices, expected better treatment, walked away from things that did me no good, I suspect. I would have been much happier, and maybe defaulted to thinking that mattered.

What happens to our relationship with the world when we let go over the narrow constraints we so often have around valuing? When we stop demanding to know the utility and the cost, and start thinking about a much broader kind of worth. When simply existing becomes a valid form of worth, to be respected and taken seriously. The environmental implications of that would be huge. So would the political consequences, because this whole language around who is undeserving would simply go away.

Speaking as something that has understood itself to be neither use nor ornament, doing away with those measures would make the world a kinder place, and, I think, a better one.

Being useful

I need to feel useful. I have been told off a number of times for this, because my saying that I need to feel useful can be taken as meaning that I feel everyone should only be valued in terms of their use. That conflation isn’t helpful, nor is it true. “I need to feel useful” is a personal statement. What anyone else needs to feel is their own business, but I think most people prefer to feel valued on some basis or another, and this is mine.

What happens when I’m told I shouldn’t feel this way? Does it magically enable me to develop a sense of self-esteem that has nothing to do with utility and external validation? No, it does not. I’ve tried. I’ve poked this issue repeatedly. Having taken on board that I *should* have a sense of self worth not dependent on utility, I have done all the things in the books that *should* lead to this, and they do not. It’s a bit like being told your body should be able to do the things an appendix does (storing useful bacteria, apparently) when you do not have an appendix.

So, not only do I get to feel useless when there’s a lack of external validation, I get to feel doubly useless for being the kind of person who needed to feel useful in the first place. I don’t find that terribly helpful, and I’m prepared to bet this isn’t just a ‘me’ thing and that others will have comparable experiences.

One of the most basic things that enables self esteem, and lets us feel like proper people, is being entitled to our own emotional responses. Some of us have emotional responses that do not make much sense to other people or are not, apparently, how we are “supposed” to feel. However, the moment you tell me that my feelings are wrong, or invalid, you take something away from me. You are not helping me build towards a better, healthier state of mind (although I bet you think you are). What you’re doing is crushing me further, undermining what sense of self I have, invalidating my responses and making me feel even more of a person-fail then I did at the start. Please stop doing this!

No emotional response is wrong. It may be problematic, it may be based on faulty thinking, it may be counterproductive, but it is still the emotional response that I’ve got right now, and I need to start from where I am. Being told I should not feel a thing in a certain way is destructive. If I am not entitled to feel how I feel, I am not entitled to be a person. It may be inconvenient for you. It may make you feel uncomfortable. You may not like it. This is fine, and you are entitled to all those responses, and to walk away from me if needs be, but you are not entitled to tell me that my emotions are wrong.

Telling someone they are not entitled to feel a certain way does not lead to healing. It does not open them up to better and happier ways of being. It does not cure, or restore or uplift or inspire. It crushes and demoralises and dehumanises and will make them shut up about how they were feeling. If it’s just that you didn’t like what you were hearing and want to make the problem go away, making the afflicted person shut up may strike you as being a win. From the perspective of the other person, it is a lose, and a big one.

I need to feel useful. I am not going to apologise for this anymore. I need to feel useful in order to function as a person. I have very little need for manifest utility in the people around me, but if you are interested in playing a useful role in my life, the best thing, the most generous thing you could do would be to accept me as I am, and help me find the things that let me function, rather than telling me I should not feel like this in the first place.